Mali Variations

Yesterday Austin and I went to visit the bougou (Quarter) where I lived last year for 4 months, Kalaban Koura. Half of my baggage consisted of gifts to friends and host-family there, and I unloaded it with firepower. Each person got something special and by the end I was throwing atomic fireball candy in the air to deafening applause and screaming. The living room at the Doumbia’s exploded with love and gratitude, and all my gifts were put on or turned on immediately and then everyone disappeared. My host mom composed a song on the spot for me and serenaded me as a griot (google it) would. We laughed a lot and enjoyed each other’s company. Later we ate a variation of tigadege: rice underneath a peanut sauce with baobab leaves cooked into it, each bite sprinkled with fresh lime.

After that, my role turned to courier and Austin and I went to the Dembele compound, where I was to deliver a letter, some books and a doll sent by my friend Raki who lived with them the previous year. On the way there I was stopped twice by people who recognized me from 18 months previous, when I would make the same trip from Doumbia to Dembele. At the compound I was first greeted and then promptly insulted, in the joking-cousin kind of way. Raki’s host mother is a Camara (though she married a Dembele), making her a joking-cousin of the Doumbias. That means that we playfully and creatively insult each other with the goal of outdoing the other. The most common insult is to say “i ye so dunna ye” which literally means “you are a bean-eater” but colloquially means “you stink because you fart all the time”. We always had it out whenever I visited, and each time without fail she seemed to have the upper hand.

My kora-building project seems to be coming along nicely. The neck has silver machine-tuners and is engraved with “Dialy” (my teacher is Dialy Mady Cissoko) at the bottom and “Will” at the top (however in my opinion it should be the other way around…) It took Dialy Mady’s apprentices three tries to make the perfect fully-dried sound table for the kora, which is composed of half a gourd, cow skin and three wooden poles. Today I designed the back of the kora with chalk and then cut off the excess skin. Then I tacked the design in place with upholstery tacks. Dialy Mady told me I worked a little slow (ahem… his tools are unbelievably dull), but was a good apprentice. Now all that’s left is to cut the sound hole and the holes for the neck, mount the neck and iron ring, and string it up. But it’s never that easy.

I want to paint a picture with words for you all about what life is like here, but I’m never satisfied with the outcome. This is the filthiest place I’ve ever lived. There is an open sewer in front of our house and every time I pass over it I imagine falling in and never being able to get 100% clean ever again. It contains black refuse water from the street’s compounds and houses, plus everything from broken fluorescent light bulbs to moto tires to mosquito larvae to tall grass (somehow growing). Little black bags are everywhere, swaying in the wind, collected in corners, wafting high overhead, perched in trees and burning in piles of trash alongside animal bones which very much likely came from an animal that had been eating from that exact pile of trash.

Downtown Bamako is every man for himself. I actually detest that expression because it leaves out women, but trust me: here it is fitting. With every step you have to be careful not to get killed. It’s as if cheating death gives you points, and at the end of the day you can cash in your points for free cigarettes. Motos weave around the green Sotrama buses and a woman carrying a tub of plantains on her head and a baby on her back dares them all to run her over. In the rush of one-way traffic trying to leave the central market, there’s always an old man on a bicycle wearing a traditional boubou and riding at an unbearable pace, choking in the exhaust plumes and providing an example of what slow-motion would look like in real life. I’ve noticed a technique in traffic: if you let the others know your intentions, they will usually yield. Just nudge out there, and you’ll be alright, probably.

Along with the Sotrama buses (hollowed-out vans) and motos (like a sooped-up moped), people take taxis all the time. I rode in one yesterday and when we went over a speed bump, I felt it with my feet traversing the last half of the car’s floor. Sometimes you can see the ground, other times you can barely see out the windows. Hailing them and negotiating a price is also interesting. First of all, whenever a taximan sees a white person, they honk at least once. It gets really annoying after a while. I used to respond to the honks with a flick of the wrist with the index finger extended, which means “no”, but I no longer expend the energy. Austin had the idea to carry around an air horn, and when you get honked at, you can return fire.

Secondly, there’s the price. It’s discussed in denominations of 500 FCFA, which is $1. I’ve found it’s best to negotiate in Bambara as much as possible, because the drivers are more likely to give you a better deal. I always start with the traditional greetings (how are you, how’s your family, wife, kids, business, etc) and then continue with where I’m going. Usually they won’t agree to my offer, which is lower than most whites expect to pay, and I have to pretend to walk away in search of another taxi until they beep and wave me in while muttering about the price. To go from my house to the city center, a 15-minute trip, is $2.

I’ve been spending almost every day at INA (Nat’l Institute of Arts), which is in the heart of the city center. It’s an oasis that butts up against one of the busiest intersections in Bamako. This intersection can’t survive even a second without police supervision, as people and cars and commerce and transit blend into one big gyre with all things moving in relation to the others. Every now and then I have to tell some pesky mobile merchant to bugger off, but usually I just attempt to wear a demeanor that says something like “I’m not here to buy your stuff. I have somewhere important to be.” It works pretty well most of the time.

At INA, the students are required to wear uniforms made of the INA fabric, but everyone’s clothes are created by their family’s tailor (tailors are everywhere and cheap). There are thousands of styles and most of them are so creative that I find myself wishing I had some clothes like that. INA is separated from the madness by huge walls and gates guarded by friendly old men in oversized brown uniforms. I really enjoy greeting them when I arrive because they always ask me why I don’t have a Malian wife, or more than one wife.

China has a monopoly on providing Mali with two-wheeled motorized transportation, and these motos are everywhere in herds, in varying states of disrepair. At INA they are parked all over the place, giving the kids a place to hang out between classes. The classrooms are simple concrete boxes where kids can learn music (they must choose one traditional and one modern instrument), painting, theater, photography, drawing, graphic design, pottery, screenprinting, leatherworking and more. Taekwondo classes are held each evening on the concrete basketball court, which is swept and scrubbed with water and a bundle of straw each afternoon by an older man who also likes to talk about my wife/wives.

Everyone knows me there as a pupil of Dialy Mady Cissoko, a music teacher there, and I’ve noticed that I get a certain level of respect from that. There are a lot of alumni that come there every day and just hang out, smoke, do the “Mali Chill” (see a blog post from last year, it’s worth it), make tea, and play around with tunes. I’ve showed them some of my original stuff on the kora and it’s been well received. Austin and I have also been inundating everyone we can with Kairaba’s new music which we carry around on mp3 players, and that has led to at least a small level of celebrity status. I was going to try to capture people’s expressions in a photo collage, but it just got to be too much to handle.

As I write this, it is my last full day in Mali. Tomorrow Austin and I fly to Senegal to meet up with Jonathan and John from Kairaba and to begin the second leg of the trip: to rock the heads and hearts of the Senegalese public. While being here in Mali, I’ve realized that I am a foreigner that is built to live here. I thrive. I really enjoy speaking two foreign languages here (French and Bambara, and sometimes Frambara) and I get so much pleasure from interacting with Malians who have taken the time to get to know me. I’m reminded to slow down and to cultivate relationships as if I was writing a novel, word by word and thought by thought. That is what matters. So much has happened here that I can’t put down in this blog, but I can say that I’d like my fourth trip here to be much longer than 12 days… à plus.

Visit this site for photos because I’m unable to load them here at the moment:


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